On Tuesday, Aug. 4—President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA)—a bi-partisan bill passed by the Senate and House of Representatives last month that’s regarded as one of the most impactful bills for parks and the outdoors in decades.
The transformative bill, championed by the late Rep. John Lewis (Ga.-5) and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million per year and allocate an additional $9.5 billion dollars over five years to address deferred maintenance in national parks and public lands.
First established in 1964, the LWCF has played a critical role in conserving outdoor space, water resources and recreation areas across the country. Funded via revenues from offshore oil and gas leases, and receiving deposits of $900 million per year—the LWCF is intended to help protect national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, and to provide matching grant funding for states and localities to support local parks and recreation projects—including trails and greenways.
Over the years, the fund has also “grown and evolved to include grants to protect working forests, wildlife habitat, critical drinking water supplies and disappearing battlefields, as well as increased use of easements,” according to the LWCF Coalition.
The LWCF has operated without full funding for decades, however—since its inception, billions of dollars in the fund have been siphoned off for other purposes—and this has greatly impacted the ability of localities, states and the federal government to create, expand and maintain parks, recreation facilities and trail networks, and to preserve critical natural areas and historical sites. It has also helped exacerbate a significant maintenance backlog on the more than 40,000 projects LWCF has funded in its 55 years.
By providing permanent, stable and full funding for the LWCF, the GAOA could effectively mean billions of dollars over the next decade to help preserve critical lands and enhance recreational opportunities at all levels, nationwide.
The National Park Service estimates that over $11 billion dollars in deferred maintenance of NPS lands need to be addressed, including $5.8 billion in facilities maintenance, which includes trails. Deferred maintenance has resulted in the unreliable status of park facilities and even closures of some parks (or section of parks) to the public, negatively impacting the user experience on treasured outdoor spaces.
The GAOA establishes the creation of the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund, which will provide $9.5 billion over five years for federal lands and national parks to help address this backlog.
Among the trail projects that could benefit from the bill is the Towpath Resurfacing Project along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park (C&O Canal Towpath), a 184.5-mile pathway that connects to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage, and helps create a 334.5-mile seamless off-road route from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. The C&O Canal Towpath also serves as a gateway of the 3,700-mile Great American Rail Trail that connects Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
The C&O Canal runs parallel to the Potomac River, which floods frequently, washing out low-lying portions of the trail. The resurfacing project will help to mitigate flooding while preserving the historic nature of the path.
The GAOA could have additional positive repercussions on trails across the country. Currently, portions of the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) are used on public lands in order to maintain multiuse and recreational trails within the parks. By creating a dedicated funding stream for trail maintenance in our national parks and on public lands, the act could allow the states and the federal government flexibility to use RTP funds for other projects.
By fully funding the LCWF and creating the National Parks and Public Lands Legacy Fund, the federal government has shown a meaningful commitment to maintain critical trails and outdoors resources. The bipartisan passage of the Great American Outdoors Act into law is a significant step in ensuring that our outdoor spaces can be protected and preserved for years to come.